When the Committee on Capital Markets Regulation (popularly known as the Paulson Committee) in its Interim Report (here) recommended "setting a cap on auditor liability," the Committee relied for support on the steps in that direction that have been taken by the European Commission. In its latest effort along those lines, the European Commission on January 18, 2007 launched a "public consultation on whether there is a need to reform the rules on auditor liability in the EU." A copy of the Commission’s press release can be found here. A copy of the Staff Working Paper can be found here.
In the Working Paper, the Commission’s staff offered four alternative proposals to cap the liability accounting firms potentially face when auditing public companies. (The Commission is asking for comment on the four proposals by March 15, 2007.) The four proposals are: a fixed monetary cap on damages that could be sought from auditors; a cap based on the audited company’s market capitalization; a cap based on a multiple of the audit fees charged; or the introduction of proportionate liability , which would hold the auditor responsible only for the damages that could be specifically attributed to them.
The initiative to afford accountants some form of liability protection is being led by Charlie McCreevy, the European Commissioner for Internal Market and Services. The initiative would potentially extend protections across the EU’s 27 member countries, although the member countries would not be required to enact them. However, the Working Paper notes that "auditor’s liability is currently capped in five Member States (Austria, Belgium, Germany, Greece and Slovenia)."
The Commission’s motivation for exploring auditor liability caps is essentially the same as that noted by the Paulson Committee in its Interim Report. That is, the Commission is concerned that as the number of audit firms capable of auditing the largest companies has dwindled down to four, the potential consequences from the failure of one of the remaining firms would be harmful to investors. In an October 27, 2006 interview in the Financial Times (here), McCreevy expressed his concern that "further reduction in the number of global firms would make it very hard for companies to get accounts signed off and published – dealing a blow to investors." McCreevy himself advocates a cap on auditor liability.
A January 19, 2007 Wall Street Journal article entitled "EU Offers Plans for Accounting Firms’ Audit-Liability Caps" (here, subscription required) suggests that the EU proposals "could help a push by the largest firms for similar protection in the U.S." The article goes on to note that the "adoption of a European auditor-liability shield, even if the member countries weren’t required to enact it, would potentially add to a sense that U.S. markets are increasingly at a competitive disadvantage to those in Europe, and, in particular, London."
The competitiveness of the U.S. capital markets will be the theme of a conference that will convened in the spring by Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson. (For a description of the planned conference, announced on January 17, 2007, refer here.) The accounting industry will be one of the three major topics to be discussed at the conference, along with regulation and corporate governance. Robert Steel, the Treasury’s undersecretary for domestic finance, in describing the conference’s anticipated topics, said that (unnamed) officials are "concerned about the accounting industry," and that the conference will look at whether there are "structural issues" that hurt the industry, such as an "unattractive liability construction." Steel, along with Paulson, recently joined the Treasury Department from Goldman Sachs.
Is the PCAOB Shielding the Big Four?: With the anxiety surrounding the possible investor consequences to investors were another of the Big Four accounting firms to fail, could it be that regulators are treading softly around the "remaining Four?" As The D & O Diary noted in a prior post (here), the Public Company Accounting Oversight Board (PCAOB) does not reveal much about its inspections of the Big Four accounting firms. For example, the PCAOB does not reveal the number of Big Four audits it inspects as part of its annual inspection process, or the percentage of audits inspected that proved to have concerns – even though it releases this information for smaller firms.
A January 18, 2007 post on CFO Blog (here) reports on a recent speech by PCAOB founder and board member Bill Gradison, in which Gradison suggests that the PCAOB considers itself a supervisory body rather than an enforcement agency, and so the agency wants to work with firms to restore "integrity" and even "luster" to the profession. For that reason, the PCAOB prefers to give the audit firms a 12-month grace period to fix problems, rather than to make them public when they happen, since "reputation is so important in a field like auditing."
While I am sure the accounting firm’s appreciate this deference to their reputation, investors’ interests are definitely forced into the back seat by this ordering of priorities. As my prior post linked above notes, the PCAOB’s annual inspection report disclosure leaves a great deal to be desired from the investors’ point of view. First and foremost, the PCAOB ought to inform investors what percentage of audits inspected produced inspection concerns. In addition, the PCAOB ought to tell the investing public how many of the audit concerns were material, which audit concerns were material, and what order of magnitude the material concerns represent.